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Summer is here and we’re all enjoying the warmth of the sun, longer days, and perhaps a vacation somewhere exciting or relaxing. We are also swatting at biting flies, scratching those mosquito bites, and hopefully taking precautions to avoid ticks. My recollections of my childhood include legs covered in red bumps and little scabs because I could not control the urge to scratch. The mosquitoes liked me, meaning that running around was as much about enjoying that Capture the Flag game as merely trying to outrun the bugs.

But why not turn these summertime lemons into some lemonade. Surely you and your child can find something interesting about those bugs, scratching the brain, so to speak, versus those bites. Creating knowledge may also boost preventative measures. That is, with some understanding your child may be more likely to use repellent or take other safety measures to avoid being bitten, as well as becoming sick.

The following sections focus on flying and biting insects (mosquitoes and flies). I will save bees, ticks, and spiders, or other biting insects (scorpions!) for another post.

 Questions

What bugs bite?

Where do mosquitos/biting flies come from?

Why do mosquito and fly bites cause a bump that is itchy?

How long do these insects live?

What do they eat?

Do mosquitoes/flies bite other animals?

Why are there more of them certain times of day?

How can I keep from being bitten?

 Observe

Mosquitoes and flies can be observed outdoors, captured in a jar, or after they were killed, but not so squashed that their body parts are no longer distinguishable.

Watch how mosquitoes or flies fly and land. Are their wings moving? Do they fly in straight lines or circles?

Check out their bodies with a hand lens. How many parts are there? Mosquitoes and flies have a head, thorax, abdomen, two wings, and six legs. Try to find all of these parts. Are their wings transparent? Most insects have four wings, but flies and mosquitoes only have two.

There are different species biting flies, or horse flies, deer flies, black flies, sand flies, and biting midges (gnats, no-see-ums, punkies). There are also different species of mosquitoes. Even within these categories, there are different species. In Maine, for example, there are as many as 40 species of black flies. So, as your child looks at these insects, he may be noticing differences that are an indication of a different species.

Flies have compound eyes. Can you see these with a hand lens?

What do mosquitos and flies sound like when flying? (Male mosquitoes locate the females by the frequency of the beats of their wings).

Can you see hairs on their legs?

Can you find places where mosquitoes could lay their eggs? Mosquitoes are called aquatic because their eggs are laid and mature in water. The adults mosquitoes do not live in water, only the young do. Find places in your yard where mosquitoes could lay their eggs. Look for toys, buckets, flower pots or other items that could collect water. Observe the water for any larvae. Mosquitoes larvae spend about ten days in water.

Observe how a pet responds to mosquitos or flies. Do they try to swipe or bite the bugs?

Collect and observe eggs or larvae. How do they move?

 Compare

How are mosquitos and flies alike or different regarding how they look?

Here are some interesting facts about mosquitoes and black flies that perhaps you can discuss for comparisons.

  1. Only the female mosquitos and flies bite as they need the extra protein (blood) to produce eggs.
  2. Humans are not their first choice for biting. Other mammals and birds are. Flies and mosquitoes bite, but they are also likely to be consumed by birds, bats, fish, and dragonflies. Unfortunately, however, the birds and bats that eat mosquitos do not eat very many of them.
  3. Both male and female mosquitos/flies feed on nectar.
  4. Mosquitoes larvae are laid and hatch in still or stagnant water, Blackfly larvae hatch in running water such as streams.
  5. Both black flies and mosquitos are attracted by the carbon dioxide we breathe out. They find the moisture in our breath attractive as well. That is why they fly around our heads and often bite along the hairline or on our necks. Other areas of exposed skin, however, will also be attractive for biting.
  6. Black flies are attracted by darker colors. Movement, warmth, and perspiration are also attractive to flies.
  7. Unlike mosquitoes, black flies are unlikely to be a nuisance in your home or car as they do not seem to like those enclosed spaces. Mosquitoes will follow you anywhere.

Consider the types of differences between mosquitos and flies and now ask how these insects are they alike or different from other flying insects such as butterflies or moths?

How about as compared to insects in general, such as ants or crickets?

 Measure

Count your mosquito or fly bites.

Count how many days a bite is pink or itchy.

If you are out of doors and there are mosquitoes out, count how many you see in a period of time, such as a minute. You may also be able to count how many are sitting on or buzzing by a screen.

You may be able to get a measure of how long a fly is from head to toe. Try to measure a mosquito, but because they are small, this could be a challenge.

When a female mosquito or fly decides to bite, it lands on its victim and inserts her proboscis (mouth) into the skin. You may want to clarify that while they bite, it is not with teeth! She then injects an anticoagulant-containing saliva that helps to keep the blood from clotting so that it can flow as she drinks. It is that saliva that causes the itch because, for the most part, we are allergic to it. Yet, people’s reactions are variable. Take a poll of friends and neighbors asking if their mosquito bites are super itchy, itchy, or not very itchy at all. Keep track and create a bar or pie chart of the results.

Over a period of several days, make note of 1) the time of day when you see or experience mosquitoes and flies, 2) the temperature, and 3) the wind conditions. Some thinking is that black flies only start moving when it warms about 50 degrees. If it is a breezy day, you may be in luck in terms of a few or no bugs. Finally, mosquitoes feed at dawn and dusk and for a period into the night.   There are some

 Experiment

What keeps mosquitoes away? I like a fan that just blows on me and produces a strong enough current that the mosquitos cannot fly too close.   Compare with using citronella candles, or a little repellent.

As noted above, black flies are attracted by darker colors. Wear a white shirt one day and a dark shirt the next. Did you experience a difference in the number of flies you were bothered by?

 Elaborate

Biting flies and mosquitoes transmit a variety of diseases to millions of people worldwide. For older children, understanding these transmission processes could be interesting and lead to a better understanding of the need to take precautions and use repellents, but introducing the notion of disease from biting insects to younger children who can not completely avoid getting bitten may not be a good idea. You will have to decide on whether your child can process that information without inducing too much fear.

Look up information on the life cycle of mosquitoes or flies. That cycle includes different stages, or egg, larvae, pupae, and adults. These cycles mirror the phases that other insects may pass through growing to adulthood and is an important concept particularly in relation to our own development.

Mosquito is Spanish for “little fly.” There are approximately 3,500 species of mosquitoes worldwide with 175 of them found in the United States.

Mosquitoes have existed since the Jurassic period, meaning that they have been pests for several million years! Find photos of mosquito fossils or entombed in amber. Alexander the Great is believed to have died from malaria which is a disease passed on in the mosquito saliva.